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Guide to the Records of the Tontine Coffee-House
1738-1879 (bulk 1791-1871)
  MS 631

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

@ 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Gregory Tavormina

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on November 04, 2011
Description is in English.

Historical Note

A tontine is a group investment that combines elements of a life annuity, life insurance, and a dead pool. The word "tontine" derives from the 17th century Neapolitan banker Lorenzo de Tonti, who is considered the inventor of the system.

In the version of the tontine as arranged under the Tontine Coffee-House, 203 shares (considered legally-transferable personal estate) were sold for $200 each to fund the establishment of a coffee house. Each shareholder selected a nominee of his choice, often young children. During the natural life of a particular shareholder's nominee, the shareholder was entitled to an equal division of profits derived from the coffee house. When that nominee died, the shareholder stopped receiving his dividends and was out of the tontine. His dividends were re-divided amongst the remaining shareholders. Therefore, as the number of nominees decreased, each remaining shareholder received more money. When the number of nominees was reduced to seven, the Tontine Coffee-House was to be dissolved and the remaining shareholders were to receive an equal division of the shares and assets derived from the property. Nominees did not receive payments of any kind and their only tie to the establishment was the use of their names. However, being chosen as a nominee was seen as an encouragement for long life.

Five trustees elected by the shareholders managed the affairs of the Tontine Coffee-House. When death reduced the number of trustees to less than three, five new trustees were elected.

New York merchants founded the Tontine Association in 1790 as a center for the merchant community. Until that time, there was no ideal place where merchants could congregate, and they would have to travel a significant distance for their daily coffee. Between 1792 and 1794, the Tontine Coffee-House was constructed on the northwest corner of Water Street and Wall Street. Initially the building operated as a coffeehouse, but the merchants quickly realized the building could generate greater profits for the tontine if leased out to more profitable businesses. By 1834 the Court of the Chancery legally made this a reality, and the Tontine Coffee-House would operate as a tavern, a hotel, and a newspaper publishing headquarters over the course of its existence. Nine years later, the coffeehouse changed its name to the Tontine Building. The Merchants' Exchange also operated in the building until 1825, when construction of the exchange on Wall Street was completed. The original building survived the Great Fire of 1835, but was demolished 20 years later to make way for a larger Tontine Building.

The Association dissolved after November 18, 1870 with the death of the 8th nominee. The remaining seven nominees were Maria Bayard, William Bayard, Robert Benson Jr., David Murray Hoffman, Gouverneur Kemble, Horatio Gates Stevens, and Mary Ray (widow of New York Governor John A. King). Frederic De Peyster, Chairman of the association and past president of the New-York Historical Society, stood to receive a significant portion of the tontine's assets as owner of one share depending on the life of David Murray Hoffman.